Vic Brownell is a deer hunter. More than seventy years old a life-long resident of northern New York’s Adirondack Mountains, he is outspoken about his concern with coyotes preying on whitetail deer, When he examines summer coyote scats; he finds hair and hooves of deer fawns. The evidence seems pretty conclusive—coyotes do eat deer fawns. After a series of mild winters, the deer population in his area failed to increase the way you might expect. Obviously, something limited the deer’s productivity.
Vic believes coyotes catch too many fawns and prevent the deer from reaching their reproductive potential. He is not alone in this opinion. Many people think the same way. But coyote predation on white-tailed deer remains a controversial issue. Not only in New York, but in Michigan, Maine, and other states throughout the coyote’s range, sportsmen call for coyote control, longer open seasons or even removal of legal protection of the coyote as a game animal. By reducing coyote populations, they hope to encourage an increase in the numbers of deer. The effect of coyotes on deer populations is not a new concern. In 1956, A.W. Bromley wrote in the Conservationist magazine that in Hamilton County, an Adirondack county, sportsmen blamed coyotes for a decline in deer populations. Fawns, they insisted, were scarce in areas where they often saw and heard coyotes.
Bromley countered their complaints by pointing out that in the same period when coyotes extended their range from 700 square miles to 16,000 square miles, the buck take rose from 4,600 in 1942 to 8,000 in 1954. Such an increase in the number of deer that hunters killed each year surely implied a growing deer population. I don’t remember that earlier controversy over coyotes and deer. In 1954, I was just starting kindergarten. I do recall listening to coyotes yodeling on the hillsides, however. They sounded a lot like a pack of beagle hounds chasing a hare. At the same time, I remember that we ate a fair amount of venison. So, when this new controversy over coyotes and deer began to heat up, I took an interest.
As an Adirondack native with the training of a wildlife biologist, I found myself in the middle and decided to turn to the literature for a look at the data to support either viewpoint, that of the sports-men or that of the state biologists.
At first, the issue seemed fairly clear cut. Early writers on the coyote, especially those in the western states, were death on coyotes. Now, in this enlightened age, we recognize the importance of predators in the ecosystem. Additionally, all the evidence points to coyotes being much more likely to scavenge and consume dead deer than to hunt and kill their own prey. As I delved into the literature of the last fifty years, however, I found that a number of modern biologists still consider the coyote a threat to deer populations, especially fawns, and that neither side in the controversy has enough data to draw iron-clad conclusions.
To make some sense out of the mass of conflicting reports, let’s look first at the literature on the eastern coyote—origins, food habits, population trends, and behavior. The history of the eastern coyote is obscured by the lack of any sort of definitive studies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but there are decided differences in size and skull characteristics of coyotes from New York and New England as compared to those of the central and western states. Modern studies suggest not only structural but behavioral differences between eastern and western coyotes. The question is, how did the coyote get into the northeast, and what caused the differences we see?
The most widely accepted scenario describes the coyote moving east along the Canadian border, crossing into New York in the early 1900’s and spreading into New England and Pennsylvania, reaching Maine by the mid- to late-1930’s. The early papers on coyotes in the east suggest hybridization with wolves or dogs. “Coydogs” became a particular concern of writers in the 1950’s when numerous reports of animals between coyotes and dogs in their appearance suggested to some biologists that a hybrid of coyote and dog might become established.
The coydog was a short-lived phenomenon and by the late 1960’s two separate research projects concluded that the wild canids of New England were a population that bred true, and a variety of Cctnis latrans,the coyote.
The eastern coyote of New England and New York is larger than the coyote of the west and has skull measurements and other characteristics intermediate between the coyote and the wolf. Most theories as to how it got that way now posit hybridization with the wolf in Ontario as it moved east. Ben Tullar, furbearer specialist in New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, offers an alternative explanation of the eastern coyotes’ origins.
He suggests that the coyote did not have to move east through Ontario to reach New York because it was always here, from before historical times. There has long been confusion in this country as to the difference between wolves and coyotes and colonial or early American records of “wolves” perhaps included coyotes (which many people to this day call “brush wolves”). Tuilai- suggests it was not the coyote that moved east, only the name.
The coyote, like the larger wolves, was nearly extirpated from New York and neighboring states in the nineteenth century, but remnant populations survived, and when habitat conditions improved in the twentieth century, their numbers increased. By that time, easterners were familiar with the coyote in the west and applied the name to the similar local animals. No “wolf’ skulls from the nineteenth century survived to provide evidence to either confirm or destroy the theory, and in any case, the question is largely academic. In practical terms, it matters not whether eastern coyotes became larger through hybridization on their way east or evolved in place over the years. What matters is that they are here now, and apparently here to stay, as a part of the wildlife community of the northeast. Biologists have collected a large body of data on the western coyote, but there are only a few studies of the coyote in the northeast.
Most of these look at coyote food habits. In New York, William J. Hamilton, Jr., analyzed the contents of some 1,500 coyote seats collected in the Adirondacks to determine what coyotes eat. Collected in all four seasons, these coyote droppings show that the animals’ diet changes with the time of the year, but the snowshoe hare is the most important prey species year-round. Deer are also an important food for coyotes, especially in the late fall, winter, and early spring. Overall,
snowshoe hare appeared in more than forty percent of the coyote seats, while almost twenty-seven percent of the seats contained deer hair or other remains of deer. More than seventy-eight percent of the coyotes’ diet consisted of various wild mammals, while twenty-one percent of the coyotes had eaten fruit such as berries, cherries, and apples. Ten percent of the coyote seats contained parts of insects. Livestock was at the bottom of the list, found in less than one percent of the coyote seats. By comparison, a coyote population in southern Quebec, where there are many small farms interspersed with wooded areas, fed mainly on carrion of domestic cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats. Jean-Marie Bergeron and Pierre Demers, who studied this population, found that thirty percent of the coyotes ate some sort of livestock, six percent ate snowshoe hares, less than five percent ate deer, six percent ate mice, and lesser numbers of stomachs contained other small mammals. As in Hamilton’s study, few of the coyotes had fed on wild birds, but in Quebec close to ten percent had eaten chickens. Eighty-three percent of the coyote stomachs examined contained vegetable matter. Two studies in Maine examined coyote food habits at different seasons. Voit B. Richens and Roy D. Hugie studied the stomach contents of coyotes killed in the fall and early winter. Daniel J. and Joyce A. Harrison, on the other hand, looked at the foods adult coyotes and their pups consumed in the spring and summer. Richens and Rugie recorded not only the frequency with which a particular food appeared in the coyotes’ diet, but the percentage of the total food by weight for each food type. White-tailed deer topped the list by weight, at thirty-four percent of the total. The snowshoe hare represented only about twelve percent by weight, but occurred in
twenty percent of the stomachs examined. Deer remains appeared in sixteen percent of the coyote stomachs. Fruit was eaten by fourteen percent of the coyotes, but only made up four percent of the total diet. The Harrisons reported their findings from a study of coyote drop pings in terms of frequencies. Blue berries were the most common coyote food, appearing in sixty-eight percent of the droppings, and was an important food from June through October. White-tailed deer, the second most common food, appeared in forty-three percent of the coyote scats. Snowshoe hare occurred twenty-nine percent of the time and small mammals twenty- one percent. There were interesting differences in the foods of adults compared to pups. In June, for instance, ninety-two percent of the pups’ droppings contained remains of white-tailed deer, compared to sixty-nine percent of the adults. Perhaps the oddest diet reported in the literature is the combination of apples and corn which apparently sustained a population of coyotes in central New York for at least one winter. Writing in the Conservation ist, Robert E. Chambers and his associates do not list percentages by weight or by frequency, but many of the scats, they say, contained nothing but apples and corn, which were the two main foods the coyotes ate. There is no suggestion that these coyotes fed on deer or hares; they did, however, consume dead dairy calves that farmers dumped in the back forty. There are other food studies, but these are representative of the kinds of data that have been collected.
The coyote is an opportunist, and many of the differences in diet from one place to another probably result from differences in what is available. If there is plenty of carrion available, coyotes do not hesitate to eat it. Lacking dead deer or dairy calves, they catch and eat hares, rabbits, mice or other small mammals. When fruit becomes abundant, ask is on the blueberry barrens in July, they consume k in great quantities. The trouble with food habits data is that at best it tells us what the coyotes ate. It does not tell us whether the coyote killed its own prey or only ate an already-dead animal. Few, if any, biologists deny that coyotes can and do kill deer.
The question is, when coyotes feed on deer, what portion is carrion and what portion freshly-killed by the coyote? In Michigan, John J. Ozoga and E.M. Harger tracked coyotes a total of 827 miles in the snow to see what they did, what they ate and to determine whether they were primarily predators or scavengers. They looked at two areas, one on an island in Lake Michigan and the other in the Upper Peninsula, and found differences in the way coyotes hunted and how successful they were in killing deer. In the Upper Peninsula study area, coyotes were three times more successful at killing deer than they were on the island. The greater
success probably related to much deeper snow and a deer population suffering from malnutrition. Many deer starved to death in the main land study area and the coyotes ate a great many dead deer. When Ozoga and Harger analyzed their tracking data, they
showed that, at least in the winter, coyotes were much more inclined to search for carrion than to hunt determinedly for live prey. They did kill and eat small mammals, and occasionally a deer, but only rarely did they trail or chase a deer for any great distance. The average chase was not more than sixty yards, and encounters between coyotes and deer seemed to happen mainly by chance. In Maine, Henry Hilton used a similar method to study coyote predation on deer. He calculated that coyotes succeeded in killing deer between fifteen and forty-eight percent of the time. If he defined success on the basis of the number of times the coyote killed a deer compared to how frequently the coyotes path crossed a fresh deer track, the success rate was fifteen percent. When he only looked at the instances in which the coyote attempted to catch a deer, the success rate was forty-eight percent. Ozoga and Harger described coyotes searching for carrion, and even digging it up from underneath as much as twenty inches of snow. Hilton observed little or no carrion-eating in his coyote population.
A series of unusually mild winters during his study reduced starvation in the deer herd to a minimal amount, so carrion was not available. Other prey, such as snowshoe hares, was also scarce, so coyotes were forced to become predators in order to survive. In comparing results of many research projects, it is always wise to keep in mind that many sources of variation affect the outcome. You are dealing with a different habitat, different deer, different coyotes, perhaps different weather. You are also dealing with different biologists.
Clues to the researcher’s particular bias are revealed in the way they interpret their observations. For instance, Hilton reports that “a total of seventeen dead deer was examined in the study area during the study, only two of which apparently were not killed by coyotes.” The assumption appears to be that the deer was killed by a coyote, unless there is strong evidence to the contrary. Ozoga and Harger lean more to the opposite bias and state that only one of fifteen dead deer found could be definitely attributed to coyotes.” Unless there was proof, they gave the coyote the benefit of the doubt.
Winter tracking studies, of course, do not show what effect, if any, coyotes have on the deer population by eating newborn fawns in the spring and summer. To date, no one has shed much light on the question here in the east or come up with any satisfactory method for finding the answer. In Oklahoma, Gerald W. Garner and John A. Morrison studied the interactions of coyotes and whitetail deer in an open prairie habitat. Of thirty-five fawns their equipped with radio-transmitters, thirty-one died, a mortality rate of eighty-eight percent. Ninety-seven percent that died were killed by predators, mainly coyotes. In that open country, Garner and Morrison could also watch coyotes and deer and record their behavior. On the open prairie, coyotes hunt primarily by sight, scanning the countryside until they spot a lone white-tailed doe, then closing in and searching the area until they find her fawn. Garner and Morrison learned how they could catch fawns to put radio-collars on them by watching the coyotes and then using the same method. It worked very well. The same method would not work well at all in the wooded and brushy habitats favored by the eastern coyote. If the eastern coyote, like its western cousin, hunts mainly by sight, the number of fawns coyotes find and kill must be very small. To my knowledge, no one has studied summer hunting behavior or success of the eastern coyote.
Winter tracking studies suggest that even in the wooded areas coyotes hunt primarily by sight. Ozoga and Harger found no evidence that coyotes follow deer tracks or run a deer like a hound, following the scent. Most encounters came about by chance and in heavy cover the chase was short: a quick dash toward the deer which probably ended when the deer went out of sight. Twice they found tracks of a single coyote engaged in a long and fruitless pursuit of a deer through open country. The way in which the coyote ran in straight lines and cut corners trying to catch up with the deer indicates that it was a sight chase, rather than a scent trail.
This brief overview of the literature on coyotes and deer leaves us a long way from answering the question of whether coyotes limit the deer population. Chambers suggest in their Conservationist article that actually the deer may control the coyote population. Coyote bounty records for New York show two periods of sharp increase in the coyote population. Each increase followed an exceptionally severe winter in which many deer died, providing the coyotes with an abundant food supply. Other authors show correlations between coyote and hare populations, or coyotes and mice.
The fact remains that we have, in New York and in several other states, a controversy over the relationship between coyotes and deer and so far we really don’t have the data we need to resolve the conflict. In 1982, the Northeast Deer and Furbearer Technical Committees of The Wildlife Society issued a joint statement of their position on the subject of coyotes and deer. First they recognized the fact that the coyote is here to stay and that, like all species, the coyote has a legitimate place in the animal community. The coyotes value as a fur-bearer cannot be overlooked and we mustn’t forget that the coyote also has aesthetic appeal. Admittedly, coyotes do kill deer, but they are also scavengers. The position statement also pointed out that often the areas where the people are concerned over coyote predation on deer are places where deer are not controlled by hunting, the range is badly over browsed and deer suffer from chronic malnutrition. In these areas, deer would not be able to increase even if coyotes were eliminated. Finally, the Committees stated the wildlife manager’s responsibility to obtain and maintain data on coyote population trends, harvest and distribution. However, they are reluctant to engage in further research and warn against surveys simply for the sake of collecting information. The person or group that proposes new studies must prove they are necessary.
What is the sportsmen’s position on the issue? They are not convinced. Coyotes kill deer, too many deer. If those deer were allowed to live, hunters could kill them instead. Biologists don’t know how many coyotes there are, or how many deer they kill, and they aren’t even willing to try to find out. So, we are left with two opposing forces, the sportsmen and the biologists, and neither side understands the other. By the same token, neither group has enough data to back up its stance.
There is a tremendous amount that we just don’t know about the coyote and its relationship to the white-tailed deer and snowshoe hare populations. Unfortunately, much of it we will probably never know, because there is no way the research can be justified on the basis of necessity. Coyotes cannot be controlled by hunting and trapping. It has been tried time and time again without success.
Even if the biologists agreed to rescind the coyote’s protection as a game animal and allow year-round hunting and trapping, the coyote could never be eliminated, or even reduced in numbers over the long run, unless perhaps the habitat changed drastically again. Coyotes are prolific creatures. In small or heavily trapped populations, they average as many as seven pups per litter. According to Ben Tullar, we would have to take seventy-five percent of the coyote population each year, just to keep it from increasing, and that’s pretty hard to do. Personally, I’m glad the coyote is back in New York. I don’t begrudge him a few deer. After all, I understand. I like venison, too
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